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New Program for Horse Lovers

Horses at sunset

Just like people, healthy horses need a nutritious diet and plenty of exercise. Photo by John McCormick.

By Elise LeQuire

Tennessee horse enthusiasts and professionals spend nearly $300 million a year subsidizing their passion. From the idle “yard ornament” some keep on a small acreage to the high-dollar performance horse on the show circuit, Tennessee’s equine population of more than 210,000 is an important driver of the state’s agricultural economy.

An increasing number of owners, however, come to the sport, or hobby, with little or no agricultural background. For first-time owners especially, the learning curve in the responsibilities of horse stewardship can be steep. UT Extension has filled the need for education with a new program for horse owners.

“There is a big need for Extension to provide educational programs that help improve the management of our horses and horse farms,” says Bridgett J. McIntosh, assistant professor and extension horse specialist with UT’s Institute of Agriculture. McIntosh, who grew up on a horse farm and has been showing hunters and jumpers since she was seven, has developed a statewide program, the Tennessee Master Horse Owner (MHO) program, to deliver science-based information to horse aficionados, from the novice to the professional. “Traditional outreach from UT Extension has targeted youth through 4-H programs,” she says. The Master Horse Owner program targets adults, although it is suitable for all ages.

Training the Trainers

The first phase of the Master Horse Owner program consisted of in-service training for state extension agents to help them feel more confident and competent in delivering equine information to their clients. In 2008 and 2009, three 16-hour sessions were held in east, middle, and west Tennessee, covering the equine industry, health, nutrition, reproduction, genetics and selection, behavior and training, farm management, and business management. Nearly half of the state’s extension agents and a number of equine specialists completed the training, which served as preparation for delivery of the information on a county or multi-county basis.

Bridgett J. McIntosh

Bridgett J. McIntosh is an assistant professor and extension horse specialist with UT’s Institute of Agriculture.

The first program, based on McIntosh’s curriculum, took place in July 2009 in Shelby County, which has a horse population of about 4,000. “Traditionally, Extension has focused on priority programs such as beef cattle and row crops,” says Becky Muller, the county agent who organized the area-wide program. More than 50 horse people from the Memphis area, Arkansas, and Mississippi participated. The program offers 16 hours of classroom instruction, spread over three days, by equine specialists. “It’s like a mini-equine science class,” says Muller. “Where else could you get this level of training for only $125?”

The next Master Horse Owner program will be offered on a multi-county basis by Lake, Lauderdale, and Dyer Counties in October 2009. In winter 2010, Williamson County Extension, with a horse population of about 5,000, from Shetland ponies to polo ponies to draft horses, will host the program. “We hope to emphasize the responsibility of being an animal owner and the need for proper horse management,” says James D. Perry, extension agent and county director for Williamson County. “The welfare of the animal is the first priority.” That includes underscoring responsible breeding to keep a rein on the burgeoning horse population and on the number of unwanted animals. “A horse needs to be useful and have a purpose,” he says.

Perry, who has six years experience delivering a class in master beef production, says horse people tend to be less economically driven than other farming operations. “Horses are considered by many as companion animals.” For some, however, horses are also a business, but it can be tough for a boarding facility to remain profitable. “In our training program, McIntosh brought in the Tennessee Farm Bureau’s state tax coordinator and CPA Brennis Craddock to advise people on the business aspects of running a profitable horse operation,” says Perry. “It’s a rare thing to make it succeed, but our boarding stables in Williamson County do a good job of offering training, riding lessons, and other opportunities to their clients.”

Diet and Exercise

One of the most basic issues addressed in the program is nutrition and forage for horses. “Surprisingly, veterinarians receive very little nutrition training in vet school, and there is a need for education on equine nutrition in our industry,” says McIntosh, whose research focus is insulin resistance and laminitis, a systemic condition that leads to inflammation and lameness of the hoof and is common in obese horses.

Horse feeding

The MHO program features information on nutrition and forage for horses.

In 2009, to support continuing nutrition education for horse owners, horse professionals, 4-H leaders, and youth involved in horse activities, UT and Mississippi State University co-hosted the Southeast Equine Conference, a multi-state, fee-based program delivered through a consortium of 11 southeastern land-grant universities. The program was held at the Agricenter International and Expo Center in Memphis and is available online through the Mississippi State extension website.

A healthy horse diet starts with a firm foundation of pasture forage and top quality hay. Like people, horses also need exercise from workouts or time in a turnout paddock to stay fit. “There’s a lot of folklore out there that people are exposed to,” says McIntosh. That includes expensive, and unproven, supplements, and an astonishing variety of sacked feeds available in feed stores. “Some people just buy a feed that smells good even if their horse does not need it,” she says. “The goal of the Master Horse Owner program and the Southeast Equine Conference is to deliver science-based information to the horse community to improve all aspects of equine management.”

For more information and a schedule of upcoming events, visit the Master Horse Owner program website. Agents who completed the in-service training will find downloadable materials through this site.

Support of these programs has been provided by Alltech, Inc. (sponsor of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2010) and the Tennessee Farmers Cooperative.